Journey to Getting Published Part Four: Course Correct (Or: Learning a Thing or Two from Project Runway)

This post is the fourth in a series. You might be interested in Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Thanks!

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Boat in Oslo Harbor, Norway

Boats in Oslo Harbor, Norway

I teach writing to art students, who, like me, are concerned with something I nebulously call The Artistic Process (how we make art). In class every semester, we watch Project Runway, the show where fashion designers compete for the chance to win a bunch of dough, a design contract, and other juicy industry contacts. I show them the first-ever episode, “Innovation,” when the designers are asked to make a fancy dress for a night out on the town—out of materials they find at the supermarket.

After we watch, I ask the students to decide who had the best artistic process. This semester, they chose a designer named Daniel, who was confident and focused and above all, stayed the course. He chose materials that were easy to work with: a garbage bag, some tinfoil, and some butcher paper. He had a clear vision, they said, and he always stuck to it, no matter what. That, they said, was good process.

But when I asked them to decide who had the best final design, they chose everyone but Daniel. They chose the guy who’d made the dress out of corn husks, who adapted gracefully when the husks all shriveled up overnight. They chose the woman who made a dress that looked like netting, with a flouncy skirt–she’d planned to tuck crayfish into the nets but decided at the last minute that it would be too stinky. A few of them even chose the guy who’d had a blunt moment of inspiration, wrapped his model up in a shower curtain and sent her down the runway.

So, I asked them, how is it possible that the guy who had the best process ended up with the worst design? Dumb luck, or—was his process not so great after all? After a while, we agreed that maybe the best process is not about (blindly) staying true to your vision, but about being adaptable, being fluid, being open to suggestion—and above all, knowing when it’s time to start over.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

Jellyfish.

Jellyfish.

Over the weekend, at a party, I ended up deep in conversation with my friend Greg. The details don’t matter, but suffice it to say that Greg is both a fantastic writer and a psychology student, and he’s one to dig—he gets you to think about things, like, say, your book, deeply. And after he left I spent the rest of the weekend with the nagging sensation that I needed to change something. One voice said, “No! It’s done; stop tinkering. Stay the course.” The other said, “Maybe you should take a risk and try something different.” So I sent my cover letter to Greg, and he and I talked about it yesterday. He had a whole new idea for me, and somehow, in the conversation, I ended up feeling like I understood my book better than I had in years. I understood why this book ever felt worth writing. I understood why it could be a good book. And above all, I understood that I could breathe new life into this whole querying process if I totally rewrote the pitch.

So I took a deep breath and did it.

Now, I’ve always found other people’s suggestions helpful; I’m someone who thrives on advice. But I also get deeply attached to things, and I’m terrible at change, so when I decide to do something different it comes with a predictable feeling of horrible dread and fear, followed, ultimately, by relief; but it’s relief tempered with regret (e.g. “Why did I send out the cover letter with the old pitch to all the GOOD agents? What if they’re all taken by the time I polish up a new letter?”). This sensation isn’t just reserved for writing. I notice when I decide to shift something about my parenting style I go through a period of anxiety that whatever I was doing before was terrible and I’ve probably screwed up L. for life. But that’s no reason to keep blindly sticking to the same course, right? Taking risks is hard, but I’m realizing that probably the best way to do your best work is to know when it’s time to try something different.

So, part four: course correct. Change it up. Take a risk. Be responsive. Write a new pitch.

Oh, in case you’re wondering? Daniel and his butcher-paper-and-garbage-bag dress lost. He was eliminated in that first episode. The delightful Corn-husk man won.

What’s Up…Friday?

I’ve been wanting to do a What’s Up Wednesday post for a while. For the uninitiated, What’s Up Wednesday was an idea for a weekly blog post started by YA author Jaime Morrow, who blogs here. I love the simple check in on a busy week. Every Wednesday, you write about….

  1. WHAT I’M READING
  2. WHAT I’M WRITING
  3. WHAT INSPIRES ME RIGHT NOW
  4. WHAT ELSE I’VE BEEN UP TO

Alas, I guess I’ve been up to other stuff on Wednesdays, because I keep missing it. So, what the hell–it’s a What’s Up Friday kind of day.

1. WHAT I’M READING….

I just picked up Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, after having inched my way through his novel Nature Girl. I hadn’t heard of Carl Hiaasen until a month or two ago, when my father-in-law gave a soliloquy about how funny he is.

photo-4Turns out ye olde FIL was right; Hiaasen’s pretty funny. He satirizes all facets of American society with a not-so-subtle environmental bent that really appeals to me. I’m not sure I’m up for a Carl Hiaasen bender, but I do enjoy reading him–and other “commercial” fiction, which I find to be very ambitious. In fact, Hiaasen has inspired me to write a blog post called “In Praise of Commercial Fiction”–stay tuned.

This morning, I went to my local independent bookstore and purchased the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Lowland. This book is up for the National Book Award and I believe the Booker Prize, too, and I’m reading it for a new book club, three.

2. WHAT I’M WRITING…

Sadly, not much. I’m still very much in professional development mode, e.g., querying my book to agents. I don’t like this as well as writing, but it has its moments. A week or so ago, after a nice exchange with novelist Tara Conklin (who’s also part of Popcorn), I started being a little more, well, bold. Yesterday I found myself writing a query letter that began “I’m sure twenty writers have claimed they have the next X, but in my case, it’s true…” Because, of course, why not? I got this fortune-cookie fortune last week and tucked it into my wallet:

photo-4You never know.

Oh, and–I should also mention my postcard poem project! My friend Mike Dockins and I are sending poems to each other on postcards. He writes one, I respond; vice versa. His handwriting, it turns out, is more legible than mine.

3. WHAT INSPIRES ME RIGHT NOW…

Fall; postcard poems; the women in my new creative women’s group; Buddhism/meditation; my garden; my son; Project Runway.

4. WHAT ELSE I’VE BEEN UP TO….

Strictly the usz: grading papers, parenting, tending house, playing a little music, enjoying family and friends. Oh and trying to make my son a dragon costume for Halloween, while simultaneously trying to get him to stop being afraid that dragons are in his room at night trying to kill him. Maybe the kid understands something about psychology that I don’t: face your fears by dressing up as them for Halloween?

Should I dress up as an unpublished memoir?

Have a great weekend, folks.

Congratulations, Alice Munro!

If any of you listen to NPR as assiduously as I do you woke to the news that Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for literature. I felt so tickled when I heard this! I think that’s because Alice Munro is one of those frequently anthologized masters whom I’ve always admired, read around the margins, felt was necessary—even though I can’t say I’ve read a whole book of her stories (I will now, methinks). Her subject matter is domestic in the most quietly terrifying of ways, and she has a very distinctive voice.

On NPR I learned also that she’s only the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature and that she recently decided to stop writing (wow: how does one do that?). And, more interestingly, that she started writing short stories thinking that novels would follow, but they never did. Her win, I think, is good news for short-story writers everywhere, who need to be brave in the face of people who wonder when they’re going to grow up and start writing novels.

I thought this article from Slate, “I Once Thought I Didn’t Like Alice Munro,” was perfect. Give it a read.

Susie

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Also…

New York Times on Alice Munro Winning the Nobel Prize

Five Fast Facts You Need to Know about Alice Munro